Things Stop Making Sense

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Courtesy of Palm Pictures: David Byrne in Stop Making Sense

I have had my first bruising experience as a freelancer.

The project was stressful from the start, with a mega-tight schedule, late delivering author and US co-publisher invoking fear and trembling in my UK client. At the peak of its urgency, software incompatability meant that files passed between my computer and the designer’s ended up scrambled, causing him hours of extra work. None of this was my fault, but that, it seems, didn’t matter.

After months of escalating stress, in which I tensed every time my phone made an email blip, it all ended with a furore over commas. I spent a day in the chill ambience of the UK office, trying to put everything right. I have never worked so hard on so little sleep. But I missed the comma issue. Americans like lists to have a comma before the final ‘and’. I did not put commas there.

This was the last straw. The deal breaker.

This has never happened to me before. I have always worked hard and done my utmost. I have always succeeded. But as I began the rest of my life today, I understood why those Apprentice candidates who are devastated to be fired by Alan Sugar always look so happy on the ‘You’re Fired’ show afterwards.

Because through all this, I have learned what makes sense to me.

I stood at the counter of the café where I volunteer today, presiding over a varied group of people, some there for the food, some for the company, some to serve the community, others for support or for the joy of doing meaningful work. There was warmth and mickey-taking, bacon and laughter. This all made sense to me.

Sitting with my Mum and Dad, putting the world to rights and working out what they are going to eat now Mum has been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Thinking of things I can cook for their freezer. This made sense to me.

Being there for friends and having them there when I need them. Supporting Jon on his long journey through depression. Watching my boys make their way in the world. This all makes sense.

An office full of nice people whom stress has made steely; evening emails asking me to explain my policy on serial commas; perfect work demanded under imperfect circumstances; an industry that has gained screw-tight efficiency, but lost its humanity – these things don’t make sense to me.

On Monday, someone dropped a bomb on a hospital in Aleppo.

I spent the day surrounded by faces pinched with tension over a book about skirts. Where, I ask you, is the sense in that?

I have lain awake lately, wondering if leaving my day job was the silly whim of a mid-life crisis.

I have considered writing a blog post entitled: Yes! I Have Fallen Flat On My Face.

But things don’t always have to be rosy – I know I have done the right thing. My ex-colleagues are brilliant and I love the work I still do for them. But I left the world of the office because it didn’t make sense to me any more, and I didn’t much like the person I was becoming.

I think I was right. And when I fall on my face, I’ll get up again.

 

 

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Spiralizing out of control

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You can now enter this blog without fear, because all trace of its former smugness has gone.

I was pretty pleased with myself, wasn’t I? Dropping hints to those poor mugs still stuck in offices that I had found the secret to a better life!

Then came a nasty bout of anxiety and depression for my husband Jon. Two weeks of holiday, though lovely in its way, led to a couple of crises, with Jon wanting to be his usual happy holiday self but feeling dreadful. Back home, he has adjusted his medication and we are hoping for improvement.

With all this going on, I have not had the headspace to write, and rejections have been flooding into my inbox from agents I have approached with my novel. They have shown an uncanny ability always to arrive on a particularly bad day.

Down – are you? Here – have a kick!

Who knew?! The life of the freelancer is not all creative joy.

And Jon has been worrying about money. No donations necessary, I hasten to add – but his anxiety means that giving up my regular income doesn’t seem quite the stroke of genius it once did.

When I was struggling with all this, a wonderful friend  gave me two pieces of advice that I highly recommend:

1 You will have to park certain worries (e.g. I will never achieve my dream of being a published writer – I’m not even writing!) and come back to them when the really important thing (Jon!) is better.

2 When things are bad, you have to take it one day at a time. Then you will not be overwhelmed.

And so onto money saving! Last year, expecting the usual enormous glut of courgettes, I bought a cheap spiralizer. A poor harvest meant that it has stayed in its box since then – but today, clutching a reasonably sized courgette and a few recipe ideas, I got it out.

I am not one of those carbo-phobic people who thinks that spiralized courgettes will convince my body that it has had spaghetti. Sometimes only real pasta will do. But I did fancy having a go at using up our plentiful home-grown courgettes and sage in an appetizing way, so here’s what I did:

Spiralized courgette with sage and walnut pesto

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Ingredients:

One medium-sized courgette, spiralized

A handful of fresh sage, chopped

A few walnuts, chopped (from a bag of Lidl mixed nuts)

Olive oil

Parsley and/or lettuce, chopped to bulk out

A little parmesan, grated (also Lidl)

Lemon juice and zest if desired

Salt and pepper

 

Method

First make the pesto. Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend into a smoothish paste. The parsley appears in most recipes to bulk out this pesto, because sage can be too bitter on its own. I have found that a lettuce leaf can be added if you don’t have much parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like.

Gently stir fry the spiralized courgette in olive oil for about five minutes so that it softens a little but doesn’t go soggy. Add the pesto and stir through over the heat. Add a little salt, a good grind of pepper and a little lemon zest if you have it – then serve.

 

 

 

Money-saving for summer

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This will be the last post for a couple of weeks, so I have been taking stock. I find that I am part of a movement, as Radio Five reported yesterday that more and more over-fifties are going self-employed to gain flexibility in their lives. I really hope that this will give the poor, beleaguered younger generation a chance – those who have enormous student debt, struggle to find the work their degrees were meant to equip them for, can’t even dream of buying a house, and pay astonishing amounts for car insurance. This generation includes my sons, and all I can say is kids, I’m so sorry.

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My boys pondering their student debt

Meanwhile, my money-saving drive has continued, and I can share the following tips:

Camp frugally

I have just come back from shopping for next week’s camping trip and the theme for the menu is tins. Tins of things you can heat up quickly, or eat cold. Luckily, Jon has recently come round to my way of thinking that cold Smart Price mushy peas are an acceptable lunch. Looking at the haul as I unpacked, it was hard to tell the difference between our week’s food and the cat’s.

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Camping supplies and cat food – spot the difference

Grow your own

The garden has finally woken up and yielded strawberries, mangetout, cherries, blackcurrants, broad beans and new potatoes as well as a huge array of herbs. In a previous era of double-income frivolity, we used to carry on buying things and use our own produce as a bonus. Now an urge for fruit means foraging in the strawberry patch and hoping the slugs haven’t beaten us to it. If you don’t have a garden, investigate what you can grow in pots or troughs on windowsills or balconies. BHS even have bags for growing potatoes, if you can get there before they all close down.

Laugh in the face of superfoods

Recent TV programmes have confirmed what we all suspected: ordinary foods that Granny said were good for us are every bit as healthy as so-called superfoods. Strawberries contain as many nutrients as goji berries. Cabbage is every bit as beneficial as kale, and in my view, much less disgusting (oh come on, no one actually LIKES kale). Rapeseed oil has been elevated to superfood status, with prices to match – but if you check out cheap vegetable oil, you’ll find this list of ingredients: Rapeseed oil.

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Make do and mend

I recently I fished out my long-abandoned sewing kit and mended the seam of a summer dressing gown instead of buying a new one. I even cinched in the waist of a cardigan that had lost its shape with the help of a bodkin and some matching wool. Most exciting of all, I discovered the following:

How to get oils stains out of t-shirts

Spilling oily food down me is my usual way of ruining clothes. I hate it when a favourite t-shirt comes back from the wash with a dark patch that hasn’t come out. I found all sorts of solutions online that sounded complex or involved items I don’t have (one required WD40). However, I tried this on a t-shirt I didn’t want to throw away, and it really worked:

  1. Put a little washing up liquid on the stain.
  2. Sprinkle it with baking powder.
  3. Rub it with an old toothbrush or clean scrubbing brush.
  4. Rinse out, then wash as normal. Once dry, the stain should be gone.

Change your car insurance

I have always been one of those people who don’t shop around for better deals because I hate the palaver of changing and fear I’ll end up paying twice or not being covered. But lately, Martin Lewis’s insistence that automatic renewal means paying a tax on the lazy has got to me. I went on Uswitch.com this week and changed our car insurance. I admit, it took much longer than changing energy suppliers and involved lots of online form filling, which always makes me shout and swear. I mean, who remembers the month and year their driving licence was issued?? (Turns out this is written in column B on the back of your licence card). However, I am now paying £230 a year instead of £330 (punches the air).

But don’t go up a ladder!

OK I am not always rational in my balance between frugality and spending. For instance, I paid £60* for someone to clean the gutters and windows this week because I have watched too many episodes of 24 Hours in A & E to allow anyone in the family to climb a ladder. This makes no sense when I will do almost anything to avoid paying £2.40 for parking – but I’ve seen those programmes! Ladder usage is the short route to ending up in a trauma ward with a camera in your face. I had the phone in my hand and a finger poised over the 9 button the whole time the man was up there. By some freak stroke of luck, he survived.

*I will not be doing this often. The man recommended quarterly, but I’m thinking we’ll do it again when we can’t see out.

 

I’m a completely different person

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Courtesy of Huffingtonpost.co.uk

This must be true because my Mum told my son, and he told me.

Four months after I gave up the day job, I look back at Office Me and I begin to understand what was up with her.

  • She was big on security and routine, but so hungry for distraction and human interaction that she had to self-impose a social media ban during work hours.
  • She was generous with money but mean with her time.
  • She had always put all her energy into doing things well, but regularly felt that nothing was ever good enough.
  • On waking, she would instantly be alert for the next thing to dread.

Now I don’t have material riches, but life is richly varied. I’m in control of what I do with my time, and I can afford to be generous with it.

I have plenty of work now, but I managed not to let it bother me when I didn’t have much, and that is the real achievement.

At the Café where I volunteer, it struck me this week that everyone leaves happier than when they came in. I love being part of that.

I spend time with people who need to talk. I sit in cafes with my parents, just watching the world go by and shooting the breeze.

I realise that in my previous existence, busyness was eating away at my humanity.

I have spent concentrated time working lately, enjoying the task with the windows open, birds singing and bees pottering in and out.

When I went into the office for a meeting, my lovely ex-colleagues looked oddly immobile, as though someone had clamped them to their chairs. When I asked how they were, they all said, ‘busy’.

I know that many people don’t have the chance to give up their day job, and that it wouldn’t suit everyone. But it seems to be working out for me.

And now my frugal tip of the week:

Join the library!

Having not been for years, I went in, joined at no cost at all and on the spot ordered a thriller that had been published that very day: When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. Within a couple of weeks, an email came to say it was ready for me. I have it for three weeks, but it isn’t going to take that long to finish it, because it’s gripping – and all for free! If you’re looking to make a saving on books but don’t want to miss out on the latest titles – what could be better?

And if you’re into cheap eating, have a go at this frugal recipe:

Roast cauliflower with black pudding and olives

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This is adapted from a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian. I always think his food looks tasty but lose interest when I see the 13 obscure ingredients and a pan I don’t have. This, however, is dead easy and  really cheap.

1 large cauliflower separated into small florets

150g of black pudding, skinned and cut into big chunks

A large onion cut into wedges

A handful of pitted green olives (buy them in big jars, in brine – try Lidl)

2 tsp smoked paprika (cheapest in Asian shops)

A handful of pumpkin seeds

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

3tbsp olive oil (doesn’t have to be extra virgin, again, Lidl or Asda)

Salt and pepper

Handful of chopped parsley

Heat the oven to Gas 7, 220C, 425F. Put everything except the parsley in a bowl with salt and pepper, mix well and spread out in a roasting tin lined with greaseproof paper. Roast for 25–30 minutes until the cauliflower is golden and soft. The black pudding will be cooked through and this is healthier than frying. The original recipe had chorizo but I have discovered a passion for black pudding and it’s so cheap!

Not to Worry

The freelancer’s challenge (and just about everyone else’s)

Back from Vietnam after an epic journey, I set about returning to my new freelancing life.  I soon realised that the nice fat payment I received in March was not likely to be repeated any time soon. I had finished off several of the projects I had kept on from my day job and had joyfully invoiced for them in the last gasp of the financial year. I have a few more on the back burner but nothing like the daily work I had to start with.

Anxiety about where my next payment is coming from has begun to creep in.

What if I can’t get any more work? What if everyone at from my day job who was so positive about continuing to give me work has now realised they’re glad to get shot of me? What if my accountant laughs when he sees my figures? (Seriously, I actually do visualise this last one. But why would he laugh? And what on earth does it matter if he does??!)

So I have been giving myself a good talking to.

Every working situation has its pros and cons. I knew that the downside of the freelancing life is that it’s all boom or bust; you’re either too busy or you have nothing to do except fret about paying the bills.

My new life is not going to work for me if I allow myself to worry about this. I need to accept that I will not always be busy and enjoy the upside.

And here are this week’s postives:

  • time for writing
  • beautiful spring weather
  • running through the woods
  • spending time with my parents and catching up with friends
  • a lovely morning walk to a church event and the warm fellowship of the people there
  • time to chat with people in the showers at swimming and at the café where I volunteer
  • being with a two-year-old, which makes seeing a digger or a helicopter a thrilling event
  • being there for my parents during their searching-the-loft-for-lost-house-deeds-and-putting-foot-through-the-ceiling crisis (don’t ask)

As ever on holiday, Jon and I ran out of books and resorted to reading each other’s, so Jon knows all about delivering babies in East End in the 50s (Call the Midwife) and I know from Bear Grylls’ Mud, Sweat and Tears that success is all about what goes on in your mind.

So I am keeping a grip on the voice in my head.

Every time it suggests I’m a loser, I shout it down. I’m equally stern when it speculates about what people think of me or devises bleak scenarios for my future.

After a run through the springtime woods one morning, my inner voice piped up:

Why worry about money when I can feel this good for free?

And that seemed much more like it. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. The trick is to worry just enough that you’re stimulated to come up with new ideas and opportunities to keep the work coming in, but not so much that you’re mired in pessimism and panic.

And given that lean times might be just round the corner, here are a couple of recipes using foraged goodies that are in season now.

Free food for foragers

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I discovered the joy of cooking with nettles and wild garlic when Jon and I were living on £1 a day per person  for Live Below the Line. If you have never cooked with nettles, put your worries aside – they do not sting you once blanched in boiling water, and the taste is velvety, smooth and delicious, not sharp as you might imagine. And wild garlic is a more delicate, fragranced alternative to the usual (tame?) variety. It’s the leaves and flowers you are after rather than the roots – have a look on grass verges and in woods. The wild garlic seems early this year so nettles have not long come up, but in any case, it’s the new, yellower top leaves you want. Obviously avoid areas where dogs might have cocked their legs, and wear gloves.

At home, plunge the wild garlic in very cold water, pat it dry and keep it in a bag in the fridge until you use it. Wash the nettles with your rubber gloves on and discard any tough stems, keeping smaller, tender ones. Blanche the nettles in boiling water for two minutes at the most, then rinse with cold water in a colander, and press out the water with a spoon. Now you can touch them without getting stung. Chop the nettles roughly and they are ready for use in either of these recipes.

Almost Entirely Free Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup

I cooked this soup tonight with what I had in the house and garden as well as what I foraged from the common. You can make it in all kinds of different ways but this is what I did.

2 generous handfuls wild garlic leaves

2 generous handfuls nettle leaves

1 small leek from the garden

500ml of vegetable stock

Prepare the nettles as above. Wash and chop the wild garlic. Chop the leek and fry it in a little olive oil for 5 minutes, then add the chopped wild garlic and fry for another 2 minutes. Add the prepared nettles and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Take off the heat and blend with a stick blender until smooth. Season as required. This makes a thin but tasty soup. You can add a splash of milk at this stage, or if you like a thicker soup, add a chopped potato or some rice at the frying stage. I served this with a teaspoonful of Asda Smart Price Soft Cheese (in the absence of any crème fraiche) and snippets of sorrel from the garden, then plopped in some of the home-made croutons that still fill my freezer from the bread leftover from Jon’s party).

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Nettle and Wild Garlic Pesto

I have kept the amounts vague because it depends how much you are going to use and how you like it. This pesto keeps for two weeks in a jar in the fridge.

3 big handfuls of nettles, prepared as above

2 big handfuls of wild garlic leaves and flowers

A little parmesan cheese*

1 small garlic clove

Zest of half a lemon and a little juice

A small handful of pine nuts or other nuts

A glug of olive oil

Whizz the prepared nettles and wild garlic in a blender with the parmesan, garlic, lemon zest and nuts. I didn’t have pine nuts but I did have a bag of unsalted mixed nuts from Lidl. I soaked a few cashews and macadamia nuts in hot water for a few minutes to soften them before blending. Blitz to a rough paste then add salt and pepper to taste and a glug of olive oil and blend again. Add a little lemon juice – I prefer only a few drops but you might like a good squeeze. Put the pesto in a clean jar and top up with a little more olive oil. Keep it in the fridge.

*Frugal though I am, I find cheap or fake parmesan a false economy (the worst is the stuff sprinkled from plastic pots – it smells of sick for goodness sake!) The fake stuff is waxy and lacks the taste of the real parmegiano reggiano, meaning that you use more . The real thing lasts for ages and just a light grating adds a huge flavour boost. Look out for offers or go to Lidl.

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We had the soup followed by Asda Smart Price spaghetti with the pesto tonight – the whole meal cost literally a few pence. We are going to honk of wild garlic at our quiz night later, however!

Look out team-mates if we lean over to whisper an answer…

A Life Less Busy

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courtesy of tyboynewsletter.blogspot.com

‘How are you – busy?’ people would say when they rang me at the office. Because busy was how I always said I was. They knew it was a barely concealed plea not to take up too much of my precious time.

I groaned if a friend or family member rang me in the evening.

I had very little time to spend with friends, or with my parents. I enjoyed the camaraderie and company of the office, but I yearned for a deeper communication; for sharing lives with others in a more meaningful way. I just didn’t have time.

I didn’t much like the person I was becoming.

With Easter upon us, I have done the first stint of life without the day job, so how have things changed?

I love spending time with my parents and with friends, having proper, unhurried chats and being able to help out when needed.

I love looking after my friend’s two-year-old, spending hours in the garden watching him exploring the possibilities of bottles, watering cans, water and, most joyfully, gravel. This week he noticed that I talk to the cat in a high voice, and made his own so hilariously shrill that surely only dogs could hear it. ‘Wake up!’ he squeaked to the sunbathing Misty.

Volunteering in the community café, I have worked with a man with learning difficulties who gets more unbridled joy from wiping tables than most people get from life’s biggest treats.

I have had time to listen to friends who are going through hard times, instead of just catching up with the headlines and having to rush off. With time for proper, prolonged talks, you can move beyond the difficulty of a situation and end up just chatting, relaxing and laughing.

I don’t hurry past when someone says ‘Hello’ to me now; I have time for the people I meet. When the woman in the charity shop messed up the till; I reassured her that that happens to me all the time at the community café.

When Jon comes home tired and stressed, I listen and sympathise. I’m not too tired and stressed myself to do so.

Horrified by the attacks in Brussels this week, I felt a strange need to reach out to our local muslim community. I looked up the details and found the email address of the imam. It took me a long time to compose that email: I was very aware of the risk of sounding like a nutcase. It was a message of peace and love, from one person of faith to another. It felt like all I could do. A couple of days later, I had the most lovely reply. The imam said my message gave him hope.

Freelance Sophie is different from Sophie-with-a-day-job. I think I might prefer her.

And of course, it’s being able to live on less that makes this new lifestyle possible, so here are latest frugality headlines:

I went to a jumble sale

I got two jackets, a jumper and a trifle bowl, all excellent quality, for next to nothing! Even charity shops look pricey to me now.

I have bought next to nothing for our up-coming holiday…

… instead fishing out suntan cream and insect repellent from the back of the cupboard and making do with some VERY old summer clothes.

I FINALLY got the message about switching energy companies

I have known for ages that I should do it but I am allergic to form-filling and fuss. However, when I’m having lunch at home, money-saving expert Martin Lewis is on the radio, and he says things like, ‘This is so easy now, you’d have to be brain-dead not to do it!’ So I asked a much cleverer friend who does these things, and she recommended http://www.uswitch.com. Seriously, this is incredibly easy now. I just typed in a very few details about our current supplier and tariff and the site came up with 80 deals that would be cheaper. The new company let your old company know you’re moving, and pretty much everything is done for you.

I saved us £479 in a few clicks of the keyboard.

I’ll have to change again in 13 months, but it was so easy, I don’t care. I feel just as epic as that bloke in the adverts. I may walk round London wiggling my booty.

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courtesy of http://www.createfilmproductions.co.uk

And now I’m going to ruin everything and look like the most enormous frugality fraud, because we are off to Vietnam to celebrate Jon’s 50th birthday – on the proceeds of the two-salaried life we have left behind!

If it makes you feel any better, we are going on one of the busiest days of the year, one of those storms with a name is forecast and the terrorist threat is at ‘Severe’, which officially means, ‘one down from there’s actually someone with a gun to your head’.

Still outraged? OK, I’m going to slink off now and come back to you in a couple of weeks…

The real source of work stress

It has been five weeks since I left my editor’s red pen in the office and headed home.

It has been a revelation. For the first few weeks, I castigated for not doing the right thing at the right time and not doing anything well. When I was writing, I thought I ought to be working, and vice versa. My aim was for every minute of the day to be productive. I feared failure at every turn.

I was baffled. I had assumed that I would leave work stress in the office. Here I am in my own home, I thought. I feel judged, undervalued and criticized. But hang on a minute – I’m the only one here!

It was a huge lesson for me to discover that a significant source of stress is not in the office, but in the space between our ears.

I don’t mean to imply that work is not stressful in itself. In tough times, both private business and public sector organisations are under enormous pressure, and this gets transferred to employees. My own husband suffered nine months of severe anxiety and depression because of his previous role as deputy head of a school.

But I am fascinated to discover how much pressure comes from the negative voices inside our own heads.

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Last week, I started volunteering in a community café. On my first morning, I got confused by a multiple order while a queue was forming, and the till emitted a high-pitched shriek to let everyone know that I had messed up. I was mortified, and apologised again and again. The owner was lovely and kept saying it didn’t matter. Hours later it dawned on me that I had never worked in a café before. I had had only a few short hours to learn the job. I am not superhuman. And that’s OK.

In many workplaces, there are external pressures and critical voices. The trick – and here’s the difficult part – is not to join in with them. Let the boss between your ears be a good boss: encouraging, accepting, challenging but kind.

Things have changed in my workplace now. I have been enjoying my writing as my first baby – sorry, novel! – has come home with encouraging and hugely useful notes from my writing mentor. I have spent lovely time with my parents and with friends, from the youngest (just under 2) to the oldest (just turned 80). I have volunteered at the Winter Shelter for the homeless and at the community café – both enormously inspiring. I have been for walks and runs in the woods.  I have worked, invoiced and even been paid. I have written a talk for church. I have been sprucing up the house and only today forced an admission from Jon that he is thrilled with the tidiness of the cupboards.

Moneysaving tip for today: buy big and eke it out

We have leftover casserole from Jon’s party, frozen in batches, which makes a gorgeous meal every couple of weeks or so. This was made from chuck steak, which is not expensive at all – ask your butcher. We are also still eating the leftovers from the enormous whole salmon (price about £10) that I stuffed with herbs and lemon and baked on Boxing Day (http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/fish-recipes/whole-roasted-salmon-stuffed-with-lemon-and-herbs/). The frozen leftovers are lovely with risotto – put the fish in at the last minute as you don’t want to cook it again, just heat it through.

Whole chickens and even turkeys might seem expensive, but if you buy big to allow for leftovers, it is much more economical than buying individual breasts, legs or slices, and you can also make stock and soup.

Finally – marinate your own olives

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The ones sold in plastic pots are really expensive. Buy a big jar of olives in brine from Lidl or your best low-cost supermarket and keep it in the fridge. Put a bit of olive oil (again, Lidl and there’s no need to buy extra-virgin) in a smaller jar and add whatever flavouring you like: finely chopped garlic, lemon zest and fresh herbs are all lovely. Rinse a few olives at a time to get rid of the salty water and keep them in the oil until they’re needed. You can keep the same oil in the fridge for a month or so and replace the olives. The oil itself is lovely with bread or couscous.

Life can still be tasty when you’re mean!

Please share your own money-saving tips, or your work stress wisdom – I’d love to hear from you.

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